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Panama Votes For A Change… Again!

For the sixth time since the 1989 U.S. invasion and ousting of Panamanian military ruler Manuel Noriega, Panamanians chose not to re-elect the ruling president’s political party.

Corruption dominated the narrative… which isn’t new in Panamanian politics. In 2014, Juan Carlos Varela was also elected on an anti-corruption message.

Panamanians had high hopes for Varela. But an ongoing bribery scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht ensnarled him. By late 2018, the Odebrecht case had over 75 suspects, 5 convictions, and more than US$255 million in recovered public funds. “Recovered public funds” just means past bribes.

Varela’s approval tanked from around 80% when he was first elected to 20% near the end of the term. People lost faith that he could reign in those exploiting Panama’s anything-goes political and economic climate. And they were right…

Enter pro-business, pro-agriculture, longtime anti-corruption advocate Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo. Panama’s prospects look bright.

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The real race for presidency was between Rómulo Roux of the Democratic Change Party and Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party. Cortizo was in the lead throughout the campaign, though polls differed on how far ahead, and few predicted the nail-biting finish.

The election night results on May 5 were unexpectedly close and remained too close to call for longer than anyone expected. Voter turnout was 73%. The Electoral Tribunal waited until 11:40 p.m. to announce a winner, which was the longest taken for a winner to be declared in a post-invasion election.

With all the votes tallied, Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party emerged the winner, with a favorable National Assembly to boot. (Cortizo, 33%; Rómulo, 31%.)

The real surprise of the night, however, may have come from independent candidate Ricardo Lombana. Despite placing third, his 19% of the vote sent a clear message to Panama’s politicians—people have had enough of business as usual among them and their associates. Cleaning up the corruption won’t be a promise President-elect Cortizo can renege.

Cortizo ran on cleaning Panama’s image—both at home and abroad.

What does this mean for business and investors? For Panama’s international relations?

Only one way to find out…

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